For all the talk of how much the Arizona Cardinals were going to rely mainly on their offense to win games, it's the Cardinals' defense that has found its footing the past two weeks, while the offense seeks consistency.
Defensively, there was much to be addressed after a 44-21 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1, with star quarterback Patrick Mahomes dissecting the Cardinals' defense. And things looked much the same in the first half at Las Vegas, where Derek Carr and the Raiders moved the ball almost at will in the first half on the way to a 20-0 halftime lead.
Things got better in a hurry. The Cardinals held the Raiders to three points in the second half, kept Carr off the field for long stretches, held one of the best receivers in the game, Davante Adams, without a second-half catch, and won the game on a defensive turnover in overtime, Byron Murphy Jr. running back a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
And last week, a respectable showing in which the Cardinals held the Los Angeles Rams to 20 points and gave the team a chance to win a game, Arizona lost 20-12.
"It's been three weeks of football for us. First week, not good enough. Obviously, I thought the Raider game we got better in the second half, and last week we had some spurts where we played good defense," Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "Still too many explosive plays, but the guys played hard and we're getting closer."
Some of last week's explosive plays came in long yardage-to-go situations. On a second-and-11 in the first quarter, the Rams gained 16 yards on a short pass from Matthew Stafford that turned into a 16-yard pickup. There was also a 14-yard play on second-and-11, a Cooper Kupp reception that led to Kupp running 20 yards on an end-around for a touchdown.
Another short pass over the middle turned into 28 yards with the run after the catch. That was immediately followed by a 26-yard completion. All five plays happened before the end of the first 15 minutes.
There were more — a 26-yard pass-and-run gain to tight end Tyler Higbee and two Cam Akers 14-yard runs, the second one for the game-clinching touchdown in the third quarter — capped off by a 32-yard gain which included a long open field run in the fourth.
Joseph said the defense is growing and playing hard. And in the second half of the Las Vegas game, the unit was playing with confidence. However, he noted that 80 yards were gained on the Rams' screen passes.
"That's got to stop, right? We've got to fill the screens better and contain the screen a little bit better, you can't give up 80 yards on screens," Joseph said. "Outside of that, you know, we gave up some explosive plays that led to points. So if we can cut down on the explosive plays, it will keep the point numbers down. But as a whole, um, you know, I'm excited. "It's getting better, it's getting closer to what we're used to seeing as a defense. And hopefully this week we grow."
Joseph is preparing his defense to face do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey, who did not practice Wednesday or Thursday due to a thigh injury. He labeled the current state of the Cardinals' defense as "functional."
"The key is McCaffrey. I mean, if he's playing, to take him away first," Joseph said, "and that's our order of business and then after that, figure it out. But if he's having success, that's a problem for our defense."
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The Cardinals feel they were a couple of plays away from the defense changing the game and giving their offense momentum to possibly win the Rams game. They did get a turnover late, a fumble forced by safety Budda Baker and recovered by Jalen Thompson.
"There's always room for improvement each week, you know, still in the beginning of the first quarter of the season," defensive lineman Leki Fotu said. "But I feel like each week we're taking steps that needed to be taken."
On offense, the Cardinals know they have to do more.
"The last three halves our defense has played extremely well. For us (on offense), we've got to be able to capitalize. It's one thing to get turnovers but that doesn't mean anything as far as an offense if you don't go down and score points," tight end Zach Ertz said. "Points off turnovers to me is the biggest stat that we need to pay attention to. And so whether the defense gets a turnover at the 1-yard line like Budda did last week, making an unbelievable play ... we've got to find a way to just put points on the board consistently. We've got the talent, we've got the players, it just comes down to execution."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Improved Arizona Cardinals defense looks to keep team alive in games